Strategies & Insights

BRAND MAKERS

Posted: July 21, 2014

Part one of a two-part series where business leaders in charge of design and branding share their insights on how they choose design and branding firms.

Chris Down
Vice president of global creative at Mattel Inc.

What are the top criteria you use to select design and branding firms?
1.         Does their portfolio match our needs?
2.         Do they have an advocate we trust?
3.         Are they reliable?

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?
Generally, we let the agency’s work speak first and don’t do a great deal of research. If the work looks good and we have a need to fill, we will reach out. The process is dramatically shortened if there is an internal advocate. We have thousands of projects flowing through Mattel every year. If it doesn’t go well with a new agency, it is an easy decision to not use them again.

How do you discover new agencies?
By far, the majority of discoveries are through internal sharing and referrals. Within Mattel, we have several hundred creatives from many different disciplines—giving us a broad creative outreach and agency intelligence. Less frequently, we discover agencies through periodicals, websites and talent aggregators.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?
We have an endless number of agencies soliciting work. Not only would it be time consuming to evaluate them all, but it would be distracting to our teams. Therefore, we limit the number of pitches we take.

As we discover agencies that fit a particular need, we are more inclined to try them on a project instead of spend the time listening to formal pitches. Historically, we’ve had “agency days,” where we will aggregate new groups or even those that are currently in use and expose them to the broader Mattel creative community.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?
It is an attention-getter, for sure. If their client list includes other large companies, particularly those within our category space, it bubbles them up. A killer portfolio and an internal referral will always “weigh more” than a fancy client list, however.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?
Category experience is sometimes a “nice-to-have” and sometimes a “don’t-want-to-have”. We frequently look for agency experience outside of the toy category. Given the institutional and category knowledge we have inside, we love to benefit from unique takes from the outside. For us, this is most common when we are pushing into new sub-categories, or reaching for different consumers. We can use an agency to help us “authenticate.”

Please describe your dream agency?
An agency that gets what we mean, not just what we say
An agency that exceeds expectations by nailing the brief, then going beyond it
An agency that challenges our thinking by offering a unique, compelling point of view
An agency that solves problems
An agency that delivers

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?
An agency must connect with the position of the brand–where it is and where it seeks to go. They must understand the boundaries and draw the delicate balance of knowing where and how to push, and where not to.

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?
I once received a pitch from a design firm that I brought in based on the quality and relevance of their work. I later learned they had plagiarized much of it. The quality and integrity of the people delivering the work is paramount.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?
Agencies often overpromise. I love optimism, but when investing time, money and expectation in a project—it is critical they are able to deliver. I am also not a fan of “cost-creep”, where an agency signs up for something and has to continue to nickel-and-dime the cost up to get to the finish line. It shows me that there was either a lack of understanding of the project, a miscalculation of what it would take to get there, or a belief that it just won’t matter to us. It does.

Any other tips that you’d like to provide?
Excellent work + advocacy is the formula for success with a new agency breaking in, or an existing agency keeping busy. It really is as simple as that.

 

Ron Burrage
Senior director, global head of design at The Hershey Company

What are the top criteria you use to select design and branding firms?
Naturally, a strong portfolio and relevant experience are important, but I also consider how the agency team is going to work and interact with my internal design leaders and our cross functional partners. Design is still in the early stages of development at Hershey, so I look for agency partners that can help influence the process, elevate the design experience beyond the package and help develop and grow my internal team of design leaders.

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?
If it’s an agency that I have used in the past, or whose work I’ve admired, I typically go into a call as a conversation. If the agency has been referred to me by a colleague or has reached out to me directly, I’ll spend some time looking at their site, review a couple of case studies and crosscheck back with the brands they credit. If they seem like a good fit from a portfolio and strategy point of view, I’m happy to take or make a call.

How do you discover new agencies?
I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work with amazing talent and have built a diverse network that I consistently tap into. Whether it’s retail design, character development, package design, photography, food styling, talent casting, structural packaging, hand-lettering, tattoo artist, animation—I likely have a connection. I’ve also been known to do some fantastic forensic work when I see a design that I love and trace it back to its source. I also have a pretty great design management team that stays well-connected and brings recommendations to the table.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?
First, I want to clarify that a pitch is not a cold call.
I believe a pitch comes when you believe you’ve found a partner that has potential for a long-term relationship. Assuming that is the case, I ask to see the work that got away. Being in the CPG business for more than 20 years, I know that what actually makes it in the hands of the consumer and what an agency presented as a solution are often two different things.
I love to see this work. Most of the time, you know it will not make its way to the shelf, but it’s the goose-bump moment when you realize you’re on to something great. This really helps me get a sense of what is important to the agency—what things they were willing to let go and what things they will adamantly stand behind. It’s a good barometer for the relationship ahead.
Cold calls are a topic for another day.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?
The client list has little effect on me. Sometimes it’s a consideration as I think about global capabilities—meaning can they manage a complex portfolio, hundreds or thousands of SKUs, promotions, etc.? But beyond that, it’s not a huge factor.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?
It really is all about the talent and the personalities. The chocolate and confection category is really complex and without prior experience, there’s going to be a learning curve. As long as we know that going in, I am all for it.

What are the top three characteristics of great design firms?
People. People. People. If the work is great, but you dread getting on the phone or in a meeting room together, it’s not going to be much fun for anyone. Sure, we’ll disagree and get on each other’s nerves from time to time, but our profession is challenging enough without making it harder for ourselves.

Please describe your dream agency?
I like knowing everyone who is working on my business and having full access to creative, account and strategy.
I hate to overburden an already complex process with layers of communication. If I’d like to see a different type treatment of an alternate photography style, I find it easier to have that conversation designer to designer. I’d prefer an off-the-cuff conversation versus trying to get calendars aligned, and I expect to see great work when it’s promised and warned in advance when to reset my expectations.
I expect our partners to invest as much in understanding our brands, consumers, shoppers and customers as we do internally yet take advantage of their outsider status to push and challenge our thinking.

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?
I want to ensure that my internal partners have the access they need to feel comfortable with our agency partners and process, but ultimately the relationship lies with design. I believe when design and the agency work together with brand as clients, some of the subjectivity is removed from the work. If there’s a winning concept and a tight brief with a clear understanding of who has input/decision-making rights, it shouldn’t be an issue. This is easier said than done.

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?
I once had an agency present work that I had led with a different firm as their own. Awkward.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?
We all have our quirks and I am sure many of my partners would happily share their opinions of mine. But since you asked—elaborate excuses for less than great work, receiving a presentation moments before you’re scheduled to share with your internal clients and lack of consideration to implications of the work related to the broader portfolio.

Any other tips that you’d like to provide?
First and foremost, don’t forget to say thank you. And a frozen Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is pretty spectacular.

 

Adam Fetsch
Owner and founder at Rewined Candles

What are the top three criteria you use to select design and branding firms?
1. How interested are they in our project?
Projects fall apart when we are on a different page than the designer. We love when designers take time to ask lots of questions from the beginning and truly make an effort to understand the goals and values that are important to us.
2. How well do they communicate?
If it takes forever to get a quote from a designer, or if their response is poorly communicated or unclear it’s a sign of what is to come.
3. Does the designer’s style match our project?
Each designer we have worked with has a particular style. Asking designers to work out of their comfort zone can be risky, and the work can look forced.

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?
Research is an ongoing process. Our team is always on the lookout for great design that we encounter in our daily lives, as well as in design publications. We keep a collection of products and pieces that inspire us, and make note of designers we want to work with in the future.
It is always a huge bonus for us to work with someone local. We tend to be more successful when we can express ourselves in person, and build a more personal relationship with the designers.

How do you discover new agencies?
We are always on the lookout for great design work. We look for work that really moves us on an emotional level and is purposeful. Recommendations from other businesses and from other designers are extremely powerful.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?
We don’t solicit many pitches from design firms. When we select a firm to pitch to us, 90% of the decision has already been made.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?
It’s easy to be wowed by the impressive names on an agency’s client list. We try not to be. It’s often hard to determine what type and quality of work the designers produced for these companies. We like to judge the work itself. Winning jobs with impressive clients often has more to do with who they know and how they sold themselves than the quality of their work.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?
Most designers we’ve worked with have no experience in the candle business. I think it’s fantastic to work with people who have a fresh perspective on the industry. The new ideas that they bring forward are great, however you must take the time to educate the designers about the market. Make sure they know up front what is already out there in the market, as well as functional and logistical realities that exist in your industry.

What are the top three characteristics of great design firms?
Passion
It is a really painful process when you can tell that a designer isn’t really in to your product. Your work will not be a priority, and will not get the attention it deserves.
Great sources and partners
Nothing is more frustrating than having a great design that is impossible to execute. Great sources help execute great design.
Amazing communication
Things start falling apart quickly when communication fails. Time and money is wasted. Negative emotions tend to become involved, which can sabotage any project.

Please describe your dream agency?
Our dream agency is made up of amazing listeners, positive and passionate people, and mind-blowingly creative designers who create extremely thoughtful and purposeful work. I need the agency to really listen to what we are trying to accomplish. Note that this doesn’t mean to do exactly what we say.
I want them to fully understand where we are coming from, so they can make the best choices. We want to enjoy working with them, and we want them to enjoy working with us. We want design that is truly extraordinary, with every detail having purpose.

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?
Every agency we work with becomes a part of the family. They become a part of the team for each brand they work on and share in the successes and failures that come as we move forward. When we select a designer for a particular brand, it is generally a lasting relationship. Trying to get a new designer to embrace a project that they have not had a part in creating is a challenge that we haven’t attempted.

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?
Luckily we haven’t had any really horrible pitches. The one thing that really frustrates us is when we go to a designer we’ve worked with in the past for a new brand, and they assume that the project is theirs. We think it is important for designers to continue to communicate why they are the best fit for each new brand that we bring to them.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?
Design agencies seem to be incapable of admitting fault. It goes a long way to admit a failure. It helps establish trust. It lets us know that you will be honest with us in the future, which allows us to move faster.

Any other tips that you’d like to provide?
It’s really important for clients to take a leap of faith with designers. Hopefully, you’ve done your research and selected a great designer. As long as you believe they understand your business and the objectives you are trying to meet, let them do their job.